Friday, 6 December 2013

My review of the new biography of Tony Ryan, founder: GPA, and Ryanair.

This was first published in Business Plus magazine.

There is no disputing the lasting legacies of Tony Ryan. The enormous Irish aircraft leasing sector is one. Ryanair is another. But a reading of Richard Aldous’ new biography begs the question: was he really such a good businessman?

Truth is, not everything Tony Ryan touched to turn to gold. An example was one of his earliest non-GPA investments, the now defunct Sunday Tribune newspaper. In 1983, Ryan agreed to fund the weekly’s relaunch with Vincent Browne as editor. Ryan assumed that he and his lieutenants could contribute their commercial wisdom towards the paper’s eventual success. But little common ground emerged between Ryan and Browne, who resented any interference in the conduct of the newspaper’s affairs, causing Ryan to abruptly abandon his investment.

Ryan also took a disastrous punt at the Bank of Ireland, which he reckoned could be hauled out of the eighteenth century and into the late twentieth. This venture came close to permanently clipping Ryan’s wings as he staked everything he had to raise $80m from Merril Lynch to acquire a 5% shareholding in the bank. He demanded and received a seat on the board, but in retrospect one has to ask, what on earth was he smoking? As a buyer, lessor, and seller of aircraft, Ryan understood many of the subtler aspects of worldwide capital funding like few others. But did that make him an expert on retail banking?

There’s no question that Ryan fondly imagined that his Midas touch, which saw him transform aircraft leasing from a cottage industry to becoming a key part of the repertoire of running airlines worldwide, could be applied to almost any industry. But, as we see later, it didn’t apply to running an airline, and even his final stewardship of GPA leaves his management talents open to serious question.

Ryan’s hope of transforming Bank of Ireland into a more foot-sure and profitable outfit from his perch on the board was soon dashed, because he had (or was allowed) little influence. The value of his shares nosedived and he dumped them for little more than half what he originally paid, leaving him in debt to Merrill to the tune of $35m. There is more than a hint in Aldous’ biography that the overhang of this debt may have warped Ryan’s thinking and led to the mayhem which preceded, and indeed followed, GPA’s failed IPO.

Tony Ryan’s outstanding business achievement was GPA, the aircraft leasing company he established as a joint venture between Aer Lingus, his former employer, and London merchant bank Guinness Peat. Ryan took it from an initial investment of £50,000 to a putative value of around $3 billion in 1991. He grew GPA from a simple brokerage operation to being one of the largest non-airline owners of aircraft in the world, with a significant share of the international aircraft leasing market.

Despite having a bank as a major shareholder, Ryan largely blazed an independent financing trail, and raised most of GPA’s working capital in the form of debt, bonds or preference shares, augmented ingeniously by the securitisation of lease packages. Despite being a constant item on the GPA agenda and increasingly demanded by lenders, the raising of additional equity finance was continuously put on the long finger, an omission for which Ryan alone must shoulder the blame.

In 1991 Ryan finally agreed that GPA must go public, though the timing was unfortunate. In the aftermath of the first Gulf War, global economies were slumping and aviation was tanking. What would have been a sell-out proposition a year or two earlier now looked like a bad idea. For a raft of reasons, the IPO, even at $10 a share (Ryan had wanted more), was greatly undersubscribed and was pulled by Ryan.

Buried within the small print of several major financing deals for some of the $12 billion worth of new aircraft GPA had ordered were covenants that required the raising of fresh equity. Without the IPO, these were triggered and lenders headed for the exits. Before long GPA was circling the wagons as cash dried up. GPA’s days as an independent aircraft leasing company were numbered and it was snapped up by GE’s leasing arm.

Ryan had been depending on the IPO to make him a rich man and without it he couldn’t pay back his debt to Merrill Lynch. Fortunately some clever bargaining by Ryan, astutely aided by his new sidekick Michael O’Leary, saw Ryan’s remaining major asset, shares in Ryanair, put beyond Merril Lynch’s reach, and the debt was bargained down to a mere $4.5m.

At the time, Ryanair wasn’t worth much anyway. The startup airline that was set up to compete with Aer Lingus on the Dublin-London route been lossmaking throughout the 1980s, requiring upwards of £20m of Ryan’s cash to keep it afloat. Successive chief executives were wheeled in to stem the losses, and it wasn’t until Michael O’Leary took the helm that Ryanair turned into a money-spinner.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that Tony Ryan didn’t have a strategic vision for Ryanair, except to keep ploughing in cash in the hope that something would turn up. O’Leary, Ryan’s onetime PA, devised a clear and highly successful vision for Ryanair. According to Aldous, Ryan seems to have taken some convincing about the airline’s new flight path of cheap and not cheerful. Relations between the two were often soured as Ryan took trenchant issue with some of O’Leary’s policies. For his part, O’Leary was determined that Ryan was not going to cramp his style.

When Ryan became chairman in 1995, O’Leary informed him that Ryanair would be low cost “at the expense of style, charm and elegance”. Ryan was also warned there should be “no distractions, no coups.” When Ryan announced his ambition for Ryanair to move to a military airfield in west Dublin, O’Leary publicly shot down the idea. Ahead of Ryanair going public, Tony Ryan was replaced as chairman by American tycoon David Bonderman. Although Ryan remained on the board during the IPO and afterwards, he no longer played any significant role in the airline’s affairs.

In the end of course, the smartest thing Tony Ryan ever did was trusting Michael O’Leary to lead Ryanair. As a result Ryan became enormously wealthy and lived the high life until his death from pancreatic cancer in 2007, at the age of 71.

Richard Aldous paints an intimate warts-and-all portrait of a very combative man who, from very humble beginnings, achieved greatness but not without enduring severe setbacks along the way. The way Aldous tells it – and his authorised biographer status gave him access to papers not available to other writers - the stoic manner in which he endured and survived those setbacks is as much a measure of the man as the aggressively innovative way in which he carved out his aircraft leasing empire.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Should we change the way we select politicians?

This thought provoking piece was first published online

A new way to Govern?

February 20, 2011 at 2:17pm

Many years ago I read a short story by one of the greats of science fiction. It was written by, I seem to recall, either Ray Bradbury or Isaac Azimov, two iconic figures in the world of so-called Literary Sci-Fi. This story struck me at the time because it didn’t involve standard fodder for the genre like space travel, robots, rogue asteroids, or the undead. In this story the US Government had decided to change the system of having the entire electorate vote for a US President. Instead, a single elector had been chosen for the task of selecting the President of the United States.
He was the product of an intense sociological search that aimed to find Mr Average American Citizen for that year. He was aware of the issues facing the country and was well briefed on the merits, and demerits of the two candidates and how they would solve Federal Government problems. He was placed in a booth with two buttons, one for each candidate. Weighed down by the enormity of the task facing him, he deliberated for hours before making his choice. If I remember the story correctly, a later poll confirmed his choice as reflecting the wishes of most Americans.
Later, as I became more politically knowledgeable, I also became increasingly aware of the fact that the first job of most politicians is to get re-elected, and that, in Ireland at any rate, clientelism is the inevitable result. Our politicians want to keep us sweet, in the interests of getting re-elected. Money is lavished on ministers’ constituencies funded by hard-pressed taxpayers elsewhere. It’s a road that can easily lead to the IMF taking control. To avoid that ever happening again I wondered should we take a somewhat sideways approach to choosing TDs in this country? Could Ray Bradbury or Isaac Azimov teach us a thing or two about selecting our legislators?
The main job of politicians is to legislate but they actually spend very little time doing that. They waste our money by attending funerals, opening supermarkets and even, as in the case of the late Charlie Haughey, once officially opening a fellow politician’s barn. Most of them quiver with excitement when offered an overseas trip, and the less it has to do with running the country, the better they seem to like it. Thanks to the tribunals we now know more than a few of them routinely accept cash from companies and individuals whose interests and those of the public rarely coincide.
The method we use to pick our politicians is really haphazard. We usually vote for a nice guy, or woman, someone who spends a lot of time dealing with constituency issues. They give witty speeches, turn up at school sportsdays, haven’t too many embarrassing skeletons in their cupboards, but most of all, they remember your name. Their political party usually reflects what we imagine to be our political credo, even if that is mostly a reflection of which side of the Civil War our grandparents fought.
Too often this haphazard system produces people who are not always very good at their job, hopeless at managing the economy and, who, inevitably, set their sights on the next election rather than solving the nation’s problems through legislation. And tragically, even the good ones find they are nothing but lobby fodder, and play little or no meaningful role in Government. The only real choice we have is when, disenchanted with the economy, unemployment, sleaze or high taxes, we dump them.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not calling for the abolition of elected politicians. We badly need them to be at least the last line of defence against faceless bureaucrats who might have even worse ideas than TDs. But I sometimes wonder if the system is producing people who are better at winning elections than running the country.
Here’s another interesting thought that came to me recently. Who has the most power: a backbench politician, or someone who has recently been called for jury service? Answer, the jury member. Their vote can send people to jail for the rest of their lives, or fine them €10 million, as happened recently in the Donal Kinsella libel trial. Stories of misbehaving or inept but well-paid politicians are legion but when do you ever hear of a jury member failing to attend to his or her duties with the diligence that the task demands. Yet you get paid buttons for being on a jury.
In the UK David Cameron is promoting the idea of The Big Society, where community volunteers will take over many of the roles ordinarily managed by Government. One can justifiably suspect that his motivation is simply to cut government spending by getting ordinary citizens to empty bins, patrol neighbourhoods and sweep streets for nothing, in which case it’s a very dangerous idea more suited to North Korea. But he is right on one count. There are many, many people who do volunteer, who raise money, criticise planning applications, give help to social causes and run organisations providing everything from sports facilities to attending to the social needs of the disadvantaged.
Fingal County Council maintains a register of voluntary jobs in the community and get two applications for every voluntary job on its books, a situation which is probably replicated nationwide.
And I’m not just talking about ordinary folk, your neighbours and mine. Many professionals volunteer too. Doctors sit, unpaid, on committees to ensure the better health of the community. Architects campaign aggressively for better homes. Even lawyers sometimes give their services for nothing.
Supposing we could harness the energy, the creativeness and the sense of justice which drives these people and get them to help run the country?
I believe that many of these people, community activists and professionals alike, would gladly give a few years to the business of running the legislature if they felt they had something to contribute. We need engineers, town planners, social workers, psychologists,educators and other knowledgeable professionals whose input is badly needed as we frame our post-IMF society. But almost all would recoil in horror at being asked to mount an election campaign. Few would put themselves at the mercy of a capricious electorate which seems to make decisions on the basis of how much state loot is diverted to their constituencies, or on the smart-aleckry of the latest sound bytes.
That’s the other thing which sets politicians apart from the rest of the community. They love elections and, in the light of the latest crisis to beset the country, one could be forgiven for thinking it’s all they are good at. Why, one has to ask, are there so few economists in the Dail? Answer: because they are, like the rest of us, probably hopeless at electioneering.
So where am I going with this? I propose we change the Constitution to produce a system which gets committed people into the Dail without the necessity of having to get elected. It’s not such a daft idea. Most of President Obama’s Secretaries of State (Ministers of the Federal Government in our language) are not elected. US presidents chose their cabinets on the basis of their ability, or specialist knowledge. Some of them give up high powered jobs in industry to serve their country and they usually take a large drop in salary in the process.
Closer to home members of the UK’s House of Lords are appointed by a Prime Minister and here 11 members of the Seanad are appointed by An Taoiseach. When Garrett Fitzgerald wanted the late Professor James Dooge, a man he greatly admired, in his cabinet, he did so via the expediency of appointing him from the Seanad so he never had to stand for a more competitive Dail ballot. Dooge had stood for election to the Seanad but he didn’t have to; Fitzgerald could have appointed him as one of his "eleven".
The precedent of bringing good, unelected people into Government exists elsewhere so how to make it work in the Dail? Allowing politicians to select them is not a good idea: in most cases they will be chosen on the basis of political loyalty, not legislative ability and creativity. Allowing politicians to choose will be a waste because most will be used to make up a majority.
We need what I would call a TD Appointments Commission (it could emerge from the existing Electoral Commission) which compiles a register of suitable people, a collection of Mr and Mrs Average Ireland, as it were. They might put themselves forward, or be nominated by others. I don’t go so far as to propose they replace elected TDs entirely. Perhaps we should adopt a fifty-fifty system where half are elected normally, the others are appointed. Or they could be two-thirds elected, one third appointed, perhaps even the other way around. That’s for another debate.
The nominees are selected by the commission in the same way as juries are appointed and should, like juries, represent a good cross-section of the community. Similar to jurors, they can be challenged, by political parties, or by the public (so that the crazy ones can be weeded out). If confirmed as a public representative their "civvie" jobs have to be held open for them, just like jurors. Their pay could be calculated on their income prior to selection. Finally, and this is a major plank of my idea, once having served a term, they are never again allowed to serve as TDs, either elected or appointed. The reason is simple: because they have no future as a TD they are therefore less likely to engage in clientelism, aka the shovelling of tax revenues into their pet projects..
Fine Gael has muttered vaguely about the creation of a "Citizens’ Assembly" but it doesn’t appear as if will be much more than a toothless talking shop creating hot air without any real purpose. The party has also proposed the appointment of experts to the Dail on a list system but it’s hard to see how this won’t result in political parties packing the chamber to suit themselves. However, Fine Gael’s proposals to dilute the role of Cabinet in the drafting and passing of legislation could give backbench TDs, even unelected ones, a stronger purposeful role in the Dail.
Some people might think this idea stupid, but is any worse than the way we currently the country?

Wiring flaws ... A threat to air safety? . .. from the archives.

Flight into Danger
(Published New Scientist 13 May, 2000)
Could major air disasters have been caused by faulty wiring and how can we avoid this in the future?
Gerry Byrne investigates
A LOUD BANG behind a panel above the pilot's head was the first sign of trouble. Sparks showered into the pilot's lap as red "out of order" flags popped up all over the instrument panel in front of him. The aircraft was losing electrical power rapidly, and more warnings erupted: the aircraft's batteries were discharging, the navigation instruments went down, and the auto-throttle failed. With only a few instruments operational, the plane was in trouble.
It was just after midnight on 22 June 1998, and the aircraft, a Boeing 757, had just taken off from Larnaca in Cyprus, bound for Manchester with 217 people on board. A major disaster appeared to be in the making. The pilot alerted air traffic control, and without pausing to dump fuel turned straight back to Larnaca. Fortunately, he managed to land the heavily laden aircraft safely.
When technicians removed the panel where the explosion had occurred, they discovered that the insulation on two wires was damaged where they had rubbed against a support bracket. The fault had caused a short circuit, which led to the sparking and the near-catastrophic loss of power.
In an industry as heavily regulated as aviation, you might imagine that incidents like this are rare. But a recent study by the US Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) suggests that last year, on average, one US airliner a day was forced to make an emergency landing because of sparks, smoke or fire.
Faulty wiring is the leading culprit. And while the 757 involved in the Larnaca incident had been flying for only five years, it is older planes that are most likely to give trouble. Usually this is little more than a nuisance, no more serious than a dodgy power lead on a coffee pot. But sometimes the consequences are potentially catastrophic.
Some organisations have taken drastic action to deal with the problem. The US Navy in 1987 ordered the removal of the most vulnerable wiring from its planes, and last year NASA grounded its entire fleet of space shuttles when a wiring fault led to a launch being aborted. Yet every day, millions of passengers are still carried by commercial aircraft that are equipped with old wiring that cannot be properly tested for faults.
In the US, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been mounting a probe into the problems that may afflict aircraft that have been flying for more than 20 years . The Aging Aircraft Program has been running since 1988, prompted by an accident in which part of the roof peeled off an elderly Aloha Airlines Boeing 737 in the sky over Hawaii. It has involved exhaustive investigations into the structural integrity of things like wings, fuselages, control surfaces, landing gear and engine mountings aboard older aircraft. But nobody ever thought of looking at the electrical wiring. Until recently.
In 1996, TWA flight 800 came down off the coast of Long Island, killing all 230 people on board. Faulty wires inside a fuel tank were blamed as the most likely cause of the explosion. In the wake of that crash, checks on other airliners around the world led to the discovery of several other potential "flying bombs" in which the insulation on ageing wiring leading to sensors in fuel tanks had rubbed away through vibration, or had been damaged during routine maintenance. Then, in 1998, 229 lives were lost when Swissair flight 111 crashed off Nova Scotia minutes after the crew reported smoke in the cockpit. The cause of that accident has not yet been pinned down, but faulty wiring is one of the leading suspects.
Long before these disasters, warnings of the danger of old wiring--and of one kind of insulating material in particular--had begun to emerge. At the time of the TWA 800 disaster, one question haunted Richard Healing: "I kept asking myself, what did we know in the Navy that the commercial aviation sector didn't?" Healing, a former US Coast Guard captain, now director of safety and survivability for the US Navy, soon discovered that the answer was a tremendous amount.
After a series of baffling mid-air fires that killed several pilots in the 1980s, the Navy traced the problem to wiring in exposed areas of planes that had seen service aboard aircraft carriers: places like wheel wells, flaps and the hinged sections of folding wings. Attention focused on an insulation material made from a type of polymer known as an aromatic polyimide, often referred to by its common Du Pont proprietory brand name, Kapton. At first glance, Kapton, and its relatives, seemed to be everything an electrical insulator should be. It was tough, light, had high fire resistance and gave off relatively little toxic smoke if it did burn. As a result, aromatic polyimide coated wiring was used throughout the aircraft industry. But the Navy soon discovered that Kapton and other aromatic polyimides had a dark side.
When exposed to a combination of salt air and the solvents used to wash down aircraft aboard carriers, these wires experienced what was, in effect, accelerated ageing. The insulation became liable to crack if it was placed under strain. Worse, when faulty wires short-circuited or arced, the material changed from being an insulator to a partial conductor. Under the right circumstances, a bundle of arcing aromatic polyimide-coated wires could explode into a searing fire, generating temperatures of more than 1000 C--so hot that the wire's copper core would melt and spray outwards.
On their own, such fires will usually burn out harmlessly. But they can get hot enough to rupture and set fire to hydraulic pipes, fuel lines, insulation or any other flammable material nearby. So the US Navy spent hundreds of millions of dollars ripping the aromatic polyimides out of vulnerable areas aboard P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft and F-14 Tomcat fighters. In Britain, the Ministry of Defence heeded the warnings and started a programme to remove them from RAF and Royal Navy aircraft wherever possible.
Healing says the military were quite open about the urgency with which they removed aromatic polyimide or Kapton-type wiring. But manufacturers continued to install the same wiring in civilian airliners: Boeing used it until 1993, and Airbus Industrie continues to use limited amounts of it even now. "Did we have a problem communicating our findings to the other parts of the aviation world?" Healing asks. "I had a bucketful of information and I tossed it over the fence without checking that anybody knew about it."
Healing has helped to set up an industry organisation to combat both the cause and effect of aircraft fires--the Aircraft Wiring and Inert Gas Generator Group. He is concerned about the effect of ageing on all types of insulation used for aircraft wiring, not just Kapton. "People don't fully understand the seriousness of that degradation," he says.
Ed Block also has a strong interest in aircraft wiring: he is vice-chairman of the International Aviation Safety Association and a delegate on the Aging Transport Systems Rulemaking Advisory Committee. ATSRAC is charged by the FAA with investigating the condition of wiring in older aircraft. Block has been sounding alarm bells about Kapton and other wiring problems for more than a decade.
He points out that many older aircraft are flying long past their original design life. This is made possible by frequent inspections under "accelerated maintenance" programmes, but aircraft wiring poses special problems. Wiring, Block says, is designed for a maximum flying life of 60 000 hours. "TWA 800 had 93 303 hours on the clock when it crashed," he says. "That's 33 000 hours overtime."
ATSRAC is tackling the issue of ageing wiring on two fronts. The first, a series of visual inspections of wiring in a sample of older aircraft, is already complete. This identified more than 3000 "anomalies" aboard 81 aircraft, representing 26 per cent of the US fleet aged 20 years or more. These anomalies occurred in wires with aromatic polyimide insulation and in wires with other insulators, and only 140 of them were listed in ATSRAC's final report as being significant. The report also concluded that none of the anomalies posed a danger to flight. However, in a minority report, Block registered strong disagreement with this view.
Part of the problem with surveys like this is that paper-thin aircraft wiring insulation is so delicate that it can be damaged even by gently probing a thick bundle. Many of the anomalies that have already been found are held to be the result of careless handling by maintenance crews over the years.
ATSRAC is now moving on to the second phase of its work, a series of more intrusive inspections on retired aircraft, where damage caused by the inspection process itself doesn't matter. Block fears this may turn up even more problems. "It is generally accepted you can only visually and non-intrusively inspect 25 per cent of the wiring aboard an aircraft."
His view is partly borne out by a March 2000 report into the condition of NASA's fleet of ageing space shuttles, which were grounded for a time last year following the discovery of a series of faults, including wiring problems. In one incident, an aromatic polyimide-insulated wire had shorted out on a burred screw head, knocking out a primary and a back-up engine controller and leaving two of the shuttle's three engines without any controller back-up.
The NASA report lists 818 wiring problems on three shuttles, many of them relating to Kapton wiring. It concludes that most of the damage arose during maintenance and recommends that intrusive inspections be limited in order to minimise damage to wiring, which becomes increasingly delicate as it ages. It also warns that 20 per cent of wiring cannot be inspected without dismantling a large part of the shuttle. This means, the report says, that the job is best done when heavy maintenance is taking place.
The report also carries an even more ominous warning. It focuses on the shuttle's circuit breakers--switches designed to isolate the craft's electrical components when they sense problems such as a short circuit. The report says that the circuit breakers installed in the shuttle fleet do not always protect against an arcing fault, where sparks jump intermittently between damaged wires, or to ground. Instead, they interpret intermittent arcing as a varying load, so they may fail to trip even when current spikes exceed 10 times the danger level.
Similar circuit breakers are used in commercial aircraft, and American pilots are angry that the FAA is not taking their shortcomings seriously. Assuming that a circuit breaker will always trip out if there is a serious problem, pilots often reset tripped circuit breakers to see if a fault has rectified itself. If Kapton or other aromatic polyimide wiring is arcing, says Block, that action could be lethal. "Each time you re-energise the circuit you may be setting it up for an even more dangerous failure," he says.
In 1991, the FAA issued an advisory circular on the resetting of circuit breakers, warning that it could be dangerous. The FAA has left it up to pilots' discretion whether to continue with the practice, but in Britain the authorities have taken a stricter line. The Civil Aviation Authority has firmly instructed pilots never to reset circuit breakers, except in "exceptional circumstances". Airbus says it has issued similar recommendations for its aircraft. The ALPA is demanding that the FAA should tighten up its ruling, too.
The problem might be solved by installing different equipment. Arc fault circuit interrupters, a type of circuit breaker designed to detect and prevent arcing are now widely available for use in homes and cars. So why not put these breakers in airliners too? "There are some very unique things about aircraft power," says Jim Shaw, manager of the In-Flight Fire Project Team at ALPA. "You get what we call dirty power," he says. The current and voltage can jump when the pilot switches from one power generator to another. "That could cause all your arc protection circuit breakers to pop."
For Healing, that's not the end of the story, however. He says a research contract is being finalised between the US Navy, the FAA and two electronics manufacturers to miniaturise a smart circuit breaker that should be able to handle dirty power. A design may be completed within six months, though Block believes it could be up to two years before the regulatory authorities approve it for use on aircraft.
The main problem remains that there is at present no system that can report accurately on the condition of an aircraft's wiring. NASA routinely puts 1500 volts through some 115 volt space shuttle wiring systems in a bid to detect insulation faults. But it isn't foolproof, as defects only register if they are within a millimetre or two from a connection to ground.
A more thorough test involves soaking the wiring in a conducting solution and checking for stray voltages coming through the electrolyte. However, this system is mostly used for wiring that has already been removed from the plane, as operators are reluctant to spray corrosive conducting solutions onto their aircraft. And even if other insulation-checking systems become available, they may not give reliable results unless the testers also have baseline data for perfect, brand-new aircraft.
Much of the emphasis in the Aging Aircraft Program has been on planes which were designed and built in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Shaw warns that over the next few years much more complicated "fly-by-wire" aircraft, which have many more electrical and electronic systems, will start to come into the "ageing" bracket. With more than 300 kilometres of wiring in the average large jetliner, the problem may call for more radical solutions.
One answer, says Healing, might be to replace low-voltage wires--the sort suspected of causing the TWA explosion--with optical fibres or even to use VHF radio signals to transmit commands around the aircraft, doing away with most wires altogether. But refitting an old aircraft from scratch would probably cost more than the plane is worth.
Should all wires like those insulated with Kapton and other aromatic polyimides be removed from aircraft immediately? Safety advocates like Block certainly think so. He says the issue is a matter of life and death. "It's sad," he says. "We have come this far yet we are still tiptoeing around this subject because of its economic ramifications."
But others disagree. According to DuPont, there have been no accidents which upon analysis can be linked to Kapton. Airbus says it uses Kapton for cabin wiring because it is hard to ignite and, should a fire start, it gives off far less toxic fumes than comparable insulators. In the event of a fire it may improve survivability, says Airbus spokesman David Vailypilai. Healing agrees. "There are many places where it is the best solution provided it is not used in situations where it is vulnerable."
Whether the aviation industry changes its mind on the issue could depend on the results of ATSRAC’s wiring study, which will be completed by September.
Gerry Byrne is based in Ireland and is the winner of an IBM/STI Science and Technology Journalism Award
Further Reading:
NASA's Space Shuttle Report is available at
The progress of the TWA 800 disaster investigation can be followed at
Details of the Swissair 111 investigation are at
Comments from DuPont on Kapton insulation can be found at

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

High Times on the Cruel Sea - (Sunday Tribune, 15 April 1990)

Came across this when tidying up some old files. An interesting reminder of when I was a part-time sailing journalist ...

The Sunday Tribune's Gerry Byrne has spent a month aboard NCB Ireland, on the fifth leg of the Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race. Here, in an exclusive report, he describes the hazards of life on an ocean racer.

I had almost forgotten there were trees. The high rise buildings of Fort Lauderdale and Miami were visible from about 15 miles off the Florida coast as NCB Ireland weaved among the outward bound Bahamas Island cruise ships on the last day of our 5,500-mile voyage from Uruguay. But the trees were not visible until we passed the finishing line, the crack of the finishing gun ringing in our ears. So green, really green. So tall.

Seeing a tree again was not one of the hundreds of fantasies we shared aloud to while away the long tedium of a nightwatch in the light winds of the Doldrums or the even lighter winds of the trade wind belt which failed to deliver the windpower we needed, to speed us towards a loved one or a cold beer, or fresh bread and butter, roast pork, a Big Mac ... Twenty-four hours later I was still glancing out windows, checking on the trees.

The Whitbread (now called the Volvo Race) Round the World Race is to yacht racing what the Tour de France is to cycling, the Le Mans 24-hour is to motor racing. It is a test of endurance, of skill but more than all comparisons it is an exercise in deprivation.

The 23 yachts in the race sailed 6,300 miles to Punta Del Este in Uruguay through gales off Spain and intolerable heat in the Doldrums. At the end of October they set sail again, this time bound on a lonely 7,650 mile trek south across the bottom of the world, skirting Antarctica and dodging icebergs as they hitched rides on the back of storms that would send most other yachts scurrying for shelter. This is the shortest route to Freemantle, Australia, but you must trace it on a globe, not a flat map, to understand why.

After a few weeks' rest in Australia the Whitbread circus set off again, 3,500 miles to Auckland. Then back under the world to Punta del Este, via Cape Horn at the Southern tip of South America. They faced a further 5,500 mile trek north to Florida and a 3,800 mile dash across the Atlantic to the finish at Portsmouth. A total of 33,000 miles driven by the wind and the puny efforts of man to harness it.

By the time the race had reached Punta del Este for the second time it had claimed three lives, destroyed one yacht and inflicted millions of pounds worth of damage to hulls, masts, booms and sails. A Swedish crewman died in a road accident during the first stopover in Punta del Este. Alexis Gryshenko, co-skipper of the Russian entry, Fazisi, hanged himself during the same stopover, his fatigued mind unable to accept the loss of control he had to surrender to his American co-skipper, Skip Novak, a far more experienced yachtsman. A few weeks later a cruel Atlantic wave swept Tony Phillips to his death from the deck of the British yacht Creightons Naturally.

A collision with a spectator boat ripped the aft or mizzen mast out of the Swedish ketch, The Card, in Auckland. Four days later the small Belgian entry Rucanor Sport was battling to stay afloat after a fatal collision with a whale. Her crew nursed her back to Auckland for emergency repairs.

Aboard NCB Ireland the boom broke three times. Sixteen escaped with their lives when the keel dropped off the Finnish yacht Martela and she capsized two hundred miles off the Argentinian coast.


That was the scenario when this unfit reporter arrived at the Punta del Este dockside ten days before the start of the fifth leg. A dinghy sailor, not an offshore yachtsman, my sailing skills were nowhere near good enough to match the requirements of this giant yacht. But unless I pulled my weight I would have difficulties being accepted by the crew, several of whom had given two years of their lives to preparing Ireland's first ever entry in this race.

Some of the crew were less than lukewarm about the idea of having a journalist aboard. Irish media were quick to run bad news about the boat, slow to praise the crew's heroism. New Zealander Peter Warren was fuming about one story which falsely reported he had become engaged to a crew-member aboard the all-woman British entry Maiden.

New crewman Johnny Le Bon, brother of pop singer Simon Le Bon, was no stranger to the manipulations of the Fleet Street tabloids forever seeking 'sex-and-drugs' scandals involving the stars. Phil Barrett recalled being besieged by reporters after he and Johnny barely escaped with their lives from the capsized Drum when it lost its keel at the start of the 1985 Fastnet Race.

Dubliner Kieran Tarbett, one of Ireland's most experienced racing sailors, was puzzled by the kind of stories he had read. Like the columnist who acidly wrote that NCB, the name of the boat's main sponsor, really stood for Never Coming Back or, perhaps, Nice Cruising Boat.

There was a time when almost all of the news had been bad, he recalled one night as he took his turn on the helm off the Brazilian coast. The first skipper, Bobby Campbell, had been fired; a rule change by the race organisers left NCB seriously disadvantaged; major modifications were needed to correct defects in the yacht's sailing performance; NCB had come in two days behind the leaders in a transatlantic race last summer.

"Here I am, an Irishman, sailing on the first Irish boat ever to race around the world. I think that's great, my fellow crewmen think it's great, but it doesn't seem to matter so much to everybody else."

I had some sympathy with his viewpoint. Trying to report objectively on the Whitbread Race is a bit like a soccer reporter following Roy Keane around the World Cup series but being prevented from seeing a single match.

When NCB broke its boom in Antarctic waters during the second leg there were no reporters, no TV cameras to show us how they engineered a repair during a gale-driven snowstorm. Nobody saw crewman Killian Bushe being swept off his feet by a rogue wave and smashed senseless against a winch pedestal.

There was more drama in a stormy Whitbread day at sea than in the most exciting of cup finals. But media reaction was perhaps best summed up in a headline in a Whitbread report in the six million circulation national daily USA Today when we reached Fort Lauderdale:

"Stopover allows sailors to drink beer, tell tales."


We sailed from Punta del Este, our faces painted green, on St Patrick's Day. We had slept our last night in a comfortable bed, drunk our last cold beer, seen our last blade of grass for more than three weeks. Not to mention the trees. From now on our world extended no further than the blue horizon, no deeper than the ocean, no higher than the sky.

Our home measured 80 feet long, 20 feet at the widest, but less than half was living space for the 16 crew. The bow section, up front, was a large hollow section containing only a tiny toilet cubicle. It is deliberately kept empty to reduce weight and prevent the yacht from burying its nose in waves. The second section, from the mast aft to about halfway along the boat's length, is occupied by the engine and generator, by sails, tools and food stores.

The galley and navigation desk took up a large part of the sleeping section. We hotbunked, sleeping on barely cushioned bunks stacked three high like bread trays. Hotbunking is the yachtsman's term for sharing; when you went on deck for your watch a crewman coming off duty took your bunk.

There is no table; meals are eaten from a bowl squatting on a sailbag or standing leaning against a bulkhead. Only the barest essentials may be taken on board by the crew, enough clothing will fit into a shoebox sized locker, a Walkman and little else apart from a few books.

For recreation you mostly sleep. Blue water racing is conducive to sleeping. A typical day might start with a four-hour duty on deck starting at 2.00 am. Breakfast is at 6.00 am. After six hours off you stand another watch, from noon to 6.00 pm. Four hours off until 10.00 pm. On deck until 2.00 am.

The longest period available for sleeping is six hours, during the daytime when it is hardest to sleep. There was never enough sleep at night. I staggered on deck blinking in the darkness for about 15 minutes, then counted every second of the last ten minutes before going below again. Too often a precious sleep was rudely shattered by the thumping sound of a tightly coiled rope being released from a winch.

To save weight, cook Richard Gibson prepared meals from vacuum-packed dehydrated mixtures designed for mountaineers for whom weight is an absolute premium. Despite his best efforts they were mostly unpalatable.

The water was desalinated sea water which Gibson flavoured with more mountaineering powder which gave it the taste of weak orange squash. We called it backwash.

To add to the deprivation, NCB was cut off from the outside world. On earlier legs the crew arrived in port to discover that the Berlin Wall had been dismantled, Ceaucescu executed or Nelson Mandela released while they had been at sea. Clare Frances, a famous British yachtswoman who skippered a boat in the 1977-'78 race, once said how remarkable it was that nothing much had happened during her long months at sea. For the crew of NCB the whole world had changed.

Seasickness struck when I stopped taking a drug to keep it at bay. For three days I was violently ill.


Most of the 5,500 miles between Punta del Este and For Lauderdale were spent sailing in relatively light conditions. sometimes the Trade Winds were so steady we flew the same spinnaker for days, hardly needing to adjust its trim.

In the Tropics the sun was merciless, but its worst effect was below decks where temperatures regularly hit 35 degrees Centigrade. Sleep was difficult and I often awoke bathed in perspiration., my thin bunk cushion soaked through.

But perhaps the most difficult thing to accept was NCB's peculiar sailing characteristics. When ploughing to windward it was one of the fastest boats in the fleet. On the first day we reached second place and later held fifth place for several days, the boat's best placing ever. But once the wind angle increased, NCB fell back.

The Whitbread Round the World Race sails a course which has the wind coming mainly from astern or else roughly at right angles to the boat's direction of sailing. Yacht designers shape their hulls to go faster in those conditions. Ron Holland, the Cork-based New Zealand designer of NCB, produced a hull shape which goes faster upwind - a point of sailing for only some 10 percent of the distance, and slower when the wind is freer. We finished the leg in eighth place, NCB's best ever but one which still belittled the efforts and abilities of her crew.

The hardships and the disappointments were more than outweighed by the good times. Sharing watches and long conversations with some of the world's most talented yachtsmen. Seeing dolphins gracefully arch their way through one of the world's last wildernesses. Staring at constellations through the clearest skies on earth and watching The Plough rise higher in the sky as we moved northwards. Some nights there were shooting stars like fireworks. The thrill of feeling the boat accelerate down waves and hear it sing a weird three-note harmony whenever the winds were favourable and strong.

There were flying fishes and fantastic cloud formations but in the end a feeling of tremendous satisfaction and achievement.

We sailed into Fort Lauderdale accompanied by a small flotilla of welcoming boats and the spell was broken. There had been an unusual spirituality out there on the ocean which will take a long time for me to understand.

Even longer to forget.


The Sting in the Boeing 737 tail (from the archives)

Gerry Byrne
(New Scientist March 4, 2000)
AT 6.57 pm on 8 September 1994, the pilot and co-pilot of USAir flight 427 were swapping recipes for fruit drinks with one of the flight attendants. The aircraft a Boeing 737-300, had just descended from its cruising altitude to 1800 metres as it prepared to land at Pittsburgh’s main airport The evening was calm and clear and conditions were ideal for flying. Less than 10 minutes later they were dead, identifiable only by the DNA in tissue remains. Parts of the aircraft were buried so deep at the impact site 10 kilometres short of the runway that metal detectors had to be brought into find them. All 132 people aboard were killed in the horrific crash.
Flight 427 was every passenger’s worst nightmare: the plane had fallen out of the sky in broad daylight for no apparent reason. And it wasn’t the first time that a Boeing 737 had crashed in mysterious circumstances. Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the US government body which investigates aircraft accidents, soon began to compare the crash with another incident three years earlier. In that accident, United Airlines Flight 585, a 737-200, nose-dived into the ground killing all 25 aboard as it was coming in to land at Colorado Springs.
The crashes have remarkable similarities. Both 737s were coming in to land after uneventful flights when something went dramatically wrong. The cockpit voice recorders from both aircraft reveal the sounds of a startled crew struggling to regain control, but give little indication of the problems they were up against. Neither were investigators able to piece together what happened using information from the flight data recorders, the "black boxes" that record basic information such as the aircraft’s height, orientation and speed. In fact, investigators were about to close the file on the Colorado Springs accident without reaching a conclusion, a rare event at the world’s leading air crash investigation agency.
After the second mysterious accident, they decided to combine the investigations into a probe that would turn into the most exhaustive, longest-running inquiry of its type. Last year, after many false leads and dead ends, the NTSB published its findings on the two accidents. While the investigators now think they know what brought down both 737s and how to prevent it happening again, the engineer who led the team that found the fault fears that the resulting changes made to all similar aircraft may not have completely removed the causes of the crash. And a wider-reaching safety investigation initiated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) appears to have found another previously unsuspected problem.
Boeing began work on the 737 in the mid-1960s and the plane entered service in 1968. It has been so successful that Boeing has produced a number of models based on the design, some of which are still being produced. These aircraft, known as Classic 737s, were the type involved in the crashes, In the late 199Os, Boeing came up with a new design called the Next Generation 737.
Flying In circles
The Classic 737 design was somewhat different from similarly sized aircraft of the time, such as the McDonnell Douglas DC-9, which had two engines clamped close to each other towards the rear of the fuselage. Instead, the 737’s engines are attached to the underside of its wings. While this has some significant aerodynamic advantages, there is one major drawback. Should one engine fail, the thrust of the other tends to make the aircraft fly in a circle. To provide a compensating turning force when flying on one engine, the rudder built into the 737’s tail fin has to be much larger than on other aircraft.
In normal flight, 737 pilots rarely use the rudder’s full deflection. They do, however, need to apply large deflections to keep the aircraft on course when landing or taking off in a crosswind, for example. When a plane’s tail swings to one side, a movement known as yawing, the airflow over the wings can become asymmetric, causing the aircraft to roll. If the rudder isn’t returned to its neutral position, the plane will turn onto its side, then upside down, after which it becomes extremely difficult for the pilot to regain control.
Jet aircraft with swept-back wings also have a natural tendency to waggle their tails from side to side, or "fishtail". To combat fishtailing, many aircraft, including the Classic 737, have a device called a yaw damper that senses the waggle and automatically moves the rudder to compensate. These corrections are usually so subtle that they go unnoticed by most passengers.
Within days of the Colorado Springs and Pittsburgh crashes, investigators were confident that they were looking for a rudder problem. From black box data, eyewitness accounts and radar records, they pieced together the aircraft’s flight path. Tom Haueter, an aeronautical engineer who was a principal investigator for the NTSB on both crashes, became convinced that only a full deflection of the rudder could account for it. "Bit by bit we built this enormous jigsaw puzzle and it indicated that the rudder was dearly involved," says John Cox, a former 737 pilot who represented the US Air Line Pilots Association on the investigation.
But the investigators still needed to know what had made the rudder move. "The pilots could have done it or the airplane could have done it. We didn’t have enough data to say which happened," says Haueter. There had been pilots who reported Classic 737 rudders suddenly jamming on one side or the other, forcing the aircraft into a yaw from which they only extricated themselves with difficulty. Could the same thing have happened to flight 427 and flight 585?
In the Colorado Springs investigation, the team suspected that grit or metal shavings might have worked their way into the hydraulic system, causing it to jam. So they examined the mangled remains of this part of the aircraft for the telltale score marks that these particles should have left. There weren’t any, nor were there any in the Pittsburgh-bound plane. As far as investigators could tell, none of the parts in either rudder system appeared to be defective and all the hydraulic components were machined to proper tolerances.
Meanwhile, the investigators explored a number of other avenues, though they all lead nowhere. From the start Boeing was reluctant to accept that its aircraft might be at fault and began to come up with other leads for the team to investigate. "We’re dedicated to safety and if there’s anything we can do to make the airplane safer, we are going to do it", says Eric Dixon, Boeing’s official spokesperson based at the company’s headquarters in Seattle. "We looked at several possibilities in both of these accidents and we didn’t want to rule out anything that could have been the cause. I think that’s sometimes misunderstood."
One of Boeing’s suggestions was that the Colorado Springs crash was caused by a horizontal whirlwind called a "rotor" coming off the nearby Rocky Mountains. Boeing said this could have tipped the aircraft into a dive from which the crew couldn’t recover, However, the NTSB team decided that an experienced pilot would have been able to pull up in time. Next Boeing proposed that the Pittsburgh crash was caused by the vortices created by the wake of a larger aircraft landing 6 kilometres ahead of the doomed plane. The NTSB carried out lengthy tests by flying a Classic 737 through the wake of a larger plane but eventually discounted the idea. Finally, Boeing proposed that the pilots had operated the rudder in error and caused the accident themselves.
Haueter found it hard to accept the idea that experienced pilots would have done this. "It goes beyond comprehension in my opinion, but nonetheless we worked on it for a long time," he says.
By early 1996 the investigators had become stuck in blind alleys and bogged down in the bewildering mountain of data they had generated. To get things moving again, the NTSB chairman Jim Hall decided to break with tradition and appoint a team of outsiders to continue the inquiry. Hall chose Paul Knerr, a Californian hydraulics engineer with a reputation for methodical thouroughness, to chair the new group. To Knerr and his group, the evidence pointed to one thing: the rudder system, and in particular to a complex hydraulic device called the power control unit or PCU.
The PCU controls the flow of hydraulic fluid that pushes the rudder to the left or right in response to commands from the pilot or the yaw damper. The fluid is pumped into a piston chamber from which it can only exit through ports in the chamber wall, The position of the piston in the chamber determines which ports are blocked and which are open. The piston itself is a complex component containing a number of holes through which the hydraulic fluid must pass. Within it is another piston that works like the first: its position determines which pathways are open or blocked. The fluid can flow only when ports in the chamber wall and pathways through the first and second pistons at aligned. As the relative position of the pistons changes according to commands from the pilot or the yaw damper, fluid is routed down one line to move the rudder to the left or down a different line to move it to the right.
The PCU is located inside the tail fin but outside the heated cabin, so the device gets very cold when the aircraft is flying high. The team began to wonder what would happen if warm hydraulic fluid from the aircraft’s interior were pumped
into the freezing PCU. Could the sudden change in temperature cause the outer piston to expand and stick—perhaps without leaving the telltale scratch mark the NTSB had expected to find?
The team’s thermal shock tests produced a real surprise. When the investigators chilled a PCU to —40 C and pumped in fluid at 70 0C, the outer piston jammed tight. However, the inner piston continued to operate, and the team discovered that if it overran its position by less than 0.02 millimetres, hydraulic fluid would be directed down the wrong line. In other words, the rudder would move in the opposite direction to what the pilot intended. "It took us six or seven months to get those tests set up, but once we did, [the temperature difference appears to have been part of the root cause," said Knerr.
This was just the breakthrough the investigation needed. Haueter theorised that on each aircraft, the outer piston had become jammed, just as in Knerr’s tests. Then, in response to rudder commands from the pilots or from the yaw damping system, the inner piston had overrun by a fraction of a millimetre, causing the rudder to deflect fully in the opposite direction to the one intended.
With this new evidence to hand, the NTSB declared itself satisfied and recommended that the PCU be redesigned to prevent the overtravel of the internal piston. All 1139 Classic 737s flying in the US have now been fitted with redesigned units (the PCUs in Next Generation 737s have a different design). Boeing has sent redesigned PCUs to the owners of all other Classic 737s and believes that 95 per cent have been fitted. However, it cannot say for certain whether airlines in all parts of the world have used them.
Knerr, however, is deeply unhappy with this turn of events. He believes his tests may not have revealed the whole story of why the outer piston became jammed. The tests were carried out using hydraulic fluid that was heavily contaminated with silt since this is common in Classic 737s. Knerr argues that the unit might not have jammed if the fluid had been clean. Until the tests are repeated with clean fluid, he says, nobody really knows why the PCU failed. Temperature difference may have been what triggered the jamming, but other factors such as silting could also have had a contributory role, and Knerr wants to know what these factors are. "I don’t understand how you can redesign a [PCU] without knowing where it has malfunctioned in the first place," he says.
Even if Knerr is being overcautious, this may not be the end of the story. Last year, a Classic 737 belonging to Metrojet, a small US regional airline, experienced a full uncommanded deflection of the rudder while at cruising altitude above Baltimore, from which the pilots recovered only with difficulty The jet had been fitted with the new PCU system, and Cox, who was part of the team sent to investigate, is convinced that in this case the PCU was not at fault. He says the rudder movement was much too slow to be explained by a malfunction of the PCU.
But if not the PCU, then what? Could there be some other fundamental design problem with the rudder system? The FAA, which is responsible for all aspects of air safety in the US, cannot rule this out. It turns out that the Classic 737 has a long record of minor problems with its rudder: the NTSB has compiled a list of more than 120 rudder-related incidents, while the corresponding number for similarly sized DC-9 and MD-SO aircraft is just 3. Most problems can be traced to faults with the yaw damper, but others remain unsolved.
These incidents have forced the FAA to re-evaluate the entire design of the rudder system. Hall points out that the system lacks redundancy: if the rudder jams, there is no back-up system that can take over automatically. In contrast other similarly sized aircraft have two-piece rudders so that if one section jams the other section can compensate.
Hall also points out that the rudder systems and other controls in some versions of the Classic 737 have not been subjected to the FAA’s strict approval criteria, but were accepted on the basis that they had proven themselves safe in older versions of the aircraft. The Next Generation 737s, however, have had to meet these criteria. "I expect that 1990s questions are going to bring 1960s technology under a microscope, I have no doubt of that" says Cox.
To meet Hall’s concerns, the FAA has established a special task force based in Seattle, called the 737 Flight Control Engineering Test and Evaluation Board. The group is performing exhaustive tests on the Classic 737 rudder system, both in the air and on the ground, to find out how it might fail. "There’s not going to be any stone left unturned when this is done," says Beth Erickson, the director of the FAA’s Aircraft Certification Service, which is running the tests.
Erickson says the job of wiring up and testing a leased Classic 737 should be completed this year Testing to date has, she says, largely vindicated the design of the Classic 737’s rudder system—with one significant exception. "It’s a potential failure mode," Erickson says, but she won’t discuss any further details.
Boeing declined to comment on the latest tests but it must be worried. There are 2700 Classic 737s in service world-wide. If a new failure mode has been spotted in tests, how long before the same problem crops up on a commercial flight?
Gerry Byrne is based in Ireland and is the winner of an IBM/STI Science and Technology Journalism Award

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Can you safely use a cellphone on an airliner?

 I researched and wrote this piece in 2006 but some of the issues it raises about using cellphones aboard aircraft are still unresolved.

Can we use our mobile on this flight?
Gerry Byrne

In June 1999 Neil Whitehouse, an oil worker of Mansfield, Notts, was sentenced to 12 months in prison after being found guilty of "recklessly and negligently" endangering a British Airways flight from Madrid to Manchester. He had neither a bomb, nor a gun but a mobile phone, or cellphone, on which he was texting "I Love You" and which he refused to switch off. When warned the phone could interfere with the aircraft's navigation he reportedly joked "Why? Are we going to get lost?"

Yet actions like Whitehouse's may no longer be a crime if trials of new technology aboard Air France airbusses prove successful. It is joining TAP Portugal and BMI in fitting new technology aboard aircraft which means passengers can make and receive calls on their own mobiles without risking an air disaster.

Concern about cellphone use first emerged in the early 1990s when a string of reports from aircraft crew said that difficulties with their instruments only ceased when passengers stopped using their phones. In the US the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) banned their use aboard aircraft in 1991 while the Federal Communications Commission also banned them aboard aircraft because their use was interfering with base stations on the ground.

It has never been proved that flight or navigation anomalies were caused by cellphones and the mechanism by which interference from mobiles can interfere with flight instruments has never been conclusively demonstrated. Indeed the most persuasive tests of the impact of cellphones on flight instruments, when the UK Civil Aviation Authority created instrument anomalies aboard a jetliner, was conducted on the ground and has never been replicated in the air.

Cellphones are basically cleverly engineered two-way radios which route your phone call into a larger all-in-one local transmitter and receiver or "cell" which in turn is connected to the national landline and cellular phone system. As you move further away from your local "cell" your phone "registers" itself with a new, nearer, cell. In fact, mobile phones are constantly seeking out the strongest signal and will disconnect automatically from a weaker signal and attach themselves to a stronger one. They do this by means of an occasional pulse which is transmitted even if the phone is not in use.

"They are always saying "hello", I'm here", said Gerard Butler of Trinity College Dublin.

This creates the familiar beeping noise one often hears from a TV or computer speakers shortly before getting a mobile call and sometimes this can be heard, even when there is no call, because the phone is constantly seeking out the strongest signal. Pilots have reported hearing this sound on their headphones in flight and it was the co-incidence of hearing it, and simultaneously experiencing navigation errors or other instrumental anomalies, which first allowed them make the connection between mobile use and electromagnetic interference on the flight deck.

Mobile phones can transmit at varying power rates. Even when you are not making or receiving a call aboard an aircraft they can transmit at up to 2 watts, double the output of the average hand-held VHF walkie-talkie, when trying to reach a base station on earth.

At cruising altitude, a mobile phone's connection to a cell base station is weak and the phone automatically seeks out a stronger connection. On the ground the average mobile phone is usually in contact with, at most three base calls at any one time and will work only through one. In the air a phone can theoretically attempt to lock on to dozens and will be constantly pulsing as it attempts to decide which one is the strongest. Large numbers of phones left switched on in a cruising aircraft can create havoc with the cell phone system on the ground as all available channels are quickly clogged up.

"They have been successfully proved to interfere with aircraft instrumentation. It's less of an issue in some aircraft, which have better protection. But generally there have been problems with compasses and other navigation aids giving the wrong readings. Pilots can sometimes hear cell phones going off in their earphones, just like you can on your computer or TV, while the anomalies are occurring. We've done the research, there's definitely a link there," said Jonathan Nicholson, of the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), the UK's aviation rulemaker.

Following ground based tests in 2002 using strong transmissions close to aircraft wiring, the CAA discovered dials giving incorrect readings, and compasses and other navigational aids freezing or overshooting.

But thanks to new technologies, there's now pressure on aviation authorities to relax the worldwide ban on cellphones. An example is the system designed by Tralee, Ireland based Altobridge which places a pico-cell, or transmitter-cum-receiver aboard the aircraft so that mobile phones can communicate with it at very low power.

"The presence of a nearby pico-cell aboard the aircraft effectively reduces the output of the mobile phone," said Guy Waugh of AltoBridge.

It then routes the conversation via established phone satellite networks, such as Inmarsat, the connections from which operate at flight-deck compatible frequencies, and at very low power. Honeywell has married its hardware with AltoBridge's software and says flight tests aboard a Cessna Citation business jet tests show there was no interference with the test aircraft's own systems. Related systems are also being tested by Norwegian telecoms giant Telinor and by Arinc, another telecommunications specialist.

The German Ministry of Transport has now proposed relaxing the in-flight mobile ban to allow the new technology while in the USA the Federal Communications Commission has already started a public consultation process to abolish its no-mobile regulation.

But even if the Germans relax the rule, it is hard to see how it can allow in-flight mobile use if other aviation authorities do not concur.

"Any rule changes have to be approved by the European Aviation Safety Agency," said the CAA's Nicholson. "There has to be majority voting; no single country can either force or veto a change."

A similar stand off may occur in the USA where, even if the FCC allows mobile use aboard aircraft, the FAA has said its ban is likely to remain in force. British pilots say they will continue to enforce the ban.

"We are being briefed about the systems that are on test but as far as we're concerned the rule remains switch them, off," said Keith Bill of the British Airline Pilots Association. "We are always going to remain on the safe side with this issue."

The problem remains that hitherto, there have been few reliable measurements taken in the air of interference from mobile phones and other potentially disruptive personal electronic devices (PEDs), like laptop computers and portable entertainment systems like DVD players and Ipods. (The latter are called unintentional transmitters). That changed recently following in-flight research by Granger Morgan and Bill Strauss and published recently in the USA in IEEE Transactions.

"Nobody ever measured the radio frequency environment in the cabins of working airliners in flight," said Morgan, department head of Engineering and Public Policy at the John Heinz School of Public Policy and Management at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh. "Ours was the first set of in-flight measurements ever made with passengers aboard. We carried a radio frequency probe on 38 revenue flights with two separate airlines and in a variety of aircraft. It had a broadband antenna and could scan various cellular and GPS bands. We were interested in the GPS frequencies because of reports from pilots that some phones affected the GPS navigation system. NASA has confirmed that aircraft often lost satellite lock."

The researchers detected emissions from phones which were left switched in clear breach of the FAA and the FCC rules. The probe also detected passengers making phone calls on take-off and on final approach.

"It is troubling because if picocells become more common you are going to see people using phones during all phases of the flight and not just in the cruise which is when the picocells are to be switched on," said Morgan.

"We scanned the navigation critical bands and found disturbing stuff," said Bill Strauss who conducted the Carnegie Mellon probes with Morgan. "The GPS region was quite active. NASA studies have found that some cellular phones emit in the GPS range. I can't prove if it was a phone but a lot of people were using them and a lot were left switched on. I cannot be sure if one contributed to the other but it adds a further dimension."

Concern is also caused by the unpredictable behaviour of radio transmissions in the close confines of an aircraft. "Multiple transmission sources can cause two signals to mix and create different frequencies," explained Morgan. "It's very messy and hard to reconstruct afterwards. It's very hard to work out why something happens in this area. One solution might be to attach a radio frequency probe to the black boxes aboard aircraft. I'd advocate taking it slowly until we understand what the problem is."

At Old Dominions University, Linda Vahala is preparing to model the behaviour of picocells within a fuselage. But, as she discovered during earlier NASA sponsored research, it will not be easy. Changing the location of empty seats can dramatically change the result, she found.

"We simulated the behaviour of mobile radio waves in different aircraft," she explained. "We have tried to reproduce certain tests but we never had the same conditions. I would advocate caution. There is the potential for interference in certain frequencies at certain places aboard the aircraft."

Earlier research at Old Dominions confirmed that apertures such as windows in an aircraft fuselage can actually amplify a signal as it leaves the aircraft so that it becomes even stronger as it re-enters it through a radio or satellite navigation antenna. She also discovered that the same signals can behave completely differently coming from a different seat, or if there are more, or less, passengers aboard.

Richard Lord of AltoBridge said his company anticipates that the pilots will switch off the pico cell until the aircraft is at 10,000 feet, not because of the danger of interference with instruments, but because airlines believe phone use in the cabin might distract cabin crew and interfere with safety announcements. However in those circumstance, Strauss believes that many passengers will try to use their mobiles despite the picocells being turned off.

"People will be less willing to believe that there are issues with interference if you install the picocell system," said Strauss. "Right now I believe most people assume that the reason for the ban is because airlines want people to use the more expensive seat back satellite phones."

Yet, even if the FCC once again approves mobile use aloft, there is no guarantee that the airlines will endorse it. According to Lufthansa, which has provided a satellite link aboard some aircraft so that that passengers can access their e-mail and the Internet, some people have been using internet phones and it has led to passenger complaints. "If we do allow mobile use it would have be in a quiet area, especially during long distance night flights," said a spokesperson.

British Airways has never trialled a voice system and says it will be customer led. If its customers are anything like the 7,000 respondents to the FCC's consultation process they might never allow mobiles. The vast majority of the FCCs submissions are opposed, not on safety grounds, but because the writers simply hate to hear people jabbering away on mobiles.

In 2001 NASA researchers analysed the database of the Aviation Safety Reporting System which enables US pilots to anonymously report safety incidents without attracting an investigation or even disciplinary action. Between 1986 and 1999 it discovered 84 incidents, 39 of which were said to be critical, where the use of mobiles and other personal electronic devices such as mobile phones were linked to difficulties in flying the aircraft. Although many were reported to their airlines, in none of the reported cases were faults with equipment or wiring discovered by subsequent maintenance efforts. They were divided almost equally between advanced and less advanced cockpit designs.

About 44% occurred during a critical phase of flight, such as taking off and climbing, or descent, approach and landing. Some 31% occurred below 10,000 feet. A quarter of the anomalies were detected by ATC. In many cases the aircraft strayed off course although the cabin instruments suggested that they were flying correctly. In a quarter of the off-course cases, it was alert traffic controllers who spotted the aircraft's dilemma. In a small number of other cases, pilots also claimed that flight controls were affected, mostly autopilots, and radio communications were also affected.

One pilot reported that, in 1995, while making an automatic landing using the autopilot, the system indicated that the aircraft was on track but the pilots could plainly see that they had drifted well to the left of the runway and that the autopilots had disconnected. The same year another pilot reported an uncommanded drop of 300 feet in altitude and that the speedbrakes, flaps on the wings to slow airspeed, were suddenly extended. A year later another report showed false reading on the flight deck and the aircraft suddenly pitched down and lost 500 feet in altitude while attempting a landing. A 1999 report of navigation system malfunctions reads: "tone in headsets (confirmed NOKIA mobile phone)."

Out of 65 critical anomalies identified in the survey, mobile phones and laptops were equally implicated with 16 and 15 cases respectively identified. In nine cases the PED was never identified but others implicated included electronic games, radios, tape recorders and players, CD players, movie players, portable TVs, calculators and pagers.